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Humanities Libertexts

2.1: §8. Form and Meaning

  • Page ID
    8417
  • If we were trying to explain precisely how a given English word had evolved from a source-word in the Latin language—that is, if we were giving its full ETYMOLOGY—we should be obliged, ideally, to list all the major changes in form that it had undergone in a thousand years or more of development. In doing so, we would be presenting its complete morphological and phonetic history. However, unless we were professional linguists or lexicographers, this would be an overwhelming task. In a few short months, we can’t hope to acquire such advanced skills. It will be challenging and satisfying enough if we can merely identify the Latin word from which the modern English word derived, and perhaps draw some broad conclusions about how that word changed over the centuries so as to assume its present form. Unless you have a particular interest in the Romance languages, don’t worry about remembering the French, Italian, or Spanish form that may have served as a transition from Latin to English, even if the Romance word is mentioned in this book.

    In addition to identifying the original form of the Latin source-word, it will be essential to consider its original meaning. Few aspects of word study are more interesting than the question of SEMANTIC CHANGE. We shall often find that an English derivative has a meaning far removed from that of its Latin source.

    Here is an example that will illustrate both aspects—form and meaning. There was an old Latin word persona, which meant “mask”; the identical form is still used in English, with its original meaning basically intact, when literary critics talk about the persona of a poet or novelist.[1] But that is hardly our common English derivative. Many Latin nouns that end in the vowel –a lose that final vowel in transmission through French. Therefore we can see that English person is derived from Latin persona, and we may wish to speculate about the interesting semantic change that has occurred. Here is a possible surprise: the English word parson also comes from exactly the same source, odd though the semantic connection may seem. Two English words like person and parson, which both derive from a common source-word in another language (here, Latin persona), can be described as DOUBLETS. We’ll see many pairs like this.


    1. Students of theatre will be familiar with the Latin phrase dramatis personae, used at the beginning of a play to identify the “characters of the drama.” ↵
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